Gene Patenting

Should a company be able to patent or control the use of a plant? This lesson introduces a Canadian case that went to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Pre-Reading Questions

  1. What does a biotechnology company do? Have you heard of the company, Monsanto? If so, what do you know about it?
  2. What are genes? Have you heard of genetically modified food or genetically modified organisms (GMO’S)? If not, can you guess the meaning of these?
  3. What do modern day farmers do to protect their plants from insects and weeds?
  4. What does it mean to sue someone in a court of law?
  5. If a company invents something, what can it do to protect this invention and prevent others from stealing this idea?
  6. Explain the meaning of the following idioms: by accident and on purpose.

Vocabulary Preview

  • contain: hold within itself
  • herbicide: chemical used to kill harmful weeds and plants
  • damage: hurt, injure, cause destruction
  • previous: from before
  • recover: get back
  • research: study
  • insert: put inside
  • profit: gain; money earned
  • patent: legal protection of one’s invention
  • originate: come from
  • violate: break a law or agreement
  • sue: take to court and ask to be paid for suffering

Practice these new vocabulary words here: Gene Patenting

Gene Patenting

  1. Monsanto Canada, a biotechnology company, produces canola seed that contains a gene that protects the seed from the effects of Roundup, a weed killer also produced by Monsanto. Farmers who buy and plant Roundup Ready canola seed can use the herbicide to kill the weeds in their fields without damaging their canola crop. They must agree to buy new seed every year, instead of saving seeds from previous crops to plant new ones. Monsanto argues this is the only way to recover the money it spends on researching and developing genetically improved seeds.
  2. In the late 1990s, Monsanto sued Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmieser for growing Roundup Ready canola without having bought the seed. Schmieser said the seeds had blown into his field by accident, either from his neighbors’ fields or off passing farm equipment.
  3. Lower courts ruled against Schmieser’s “by accident” argument and ordered him to turn over the profits from his 1998 crop to Monsanto. He then took his fight to the Supreme Court of Canada to argue that a company should not be allowed to patent, or control, the use of a plant.
  4. In May 2004, the Supreme Court ruled that Monsanto could not patent a plant, but it could patent the gene that it had developed and the process for inserting it into the seeds. It means that farmers who do not buy seed directly from Monsanto each year have to remove any crop from their land that originated from Monsanto seed, no matter how it got there.
  5. Earlier, in 2003, a government biotechnology advisory council had recommended that, in some cases, higher life forms such as plants could be patented; that farmers should have a limited right to save and use seeds from patented plants; and that those who accidentally violate patents should have some legal protection.
  6. Given the Supreme Court’s decision, and the committee’s recommendations, the Federal Patent Act needs to be updated to make the rules for gene patenting clearer.

Post Reading Questions

  1. Do you believe Percy Schmeiser’s argument that the canola seeds had blown onto his land by accident?
  2. Did Percy Schmeiser win or lose his court case? Do you agree with the court’s decision? Why or why not?
  3. The article mentioned three recommendations that the Canadian government’s biotechnology advisory council made in 2003. Do you support these recommendations?
  4. Does the 2004 decision made by the Supreme Court support or contradict the recommendations of the advisory council? Explain your answer.
  5. What do you think about genetically modified food? Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of genetically modified food? Do you think that all genetically modified foods should be labeled as such?

Additional Resources